I was asked to research butler William Parsons for a mini project organized by the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS). I was told that 40 year old William was working at Charlecote House in 1871 and had been born in Birmingham. I set off to the Warwickshire County Record Office, which offers free use of the Ancestry website. The 1841 census was inconclusive. However, in 1851 20 year old William Parsons was a visitor in Russell Street, Leamington Priors [now Leamington Spa]; his occupation was ‘Gentleman Grooming’ (possibly a valet). By 1861 30 year old William was working as the butler (unmarried) to the Lucy family at Charlecote House. Ten years later William was still the butler, now married, but with no sign of Mrs. Parsons amongst the 12 servants living there.
The elusive wife
I eventually tracked William’s wife down by looking for a married Parsons of about the same age in the vicinity: in 1871 Elizabeth Parsons plus two daughters was living at Wellesbourne (the next-door village to Charlecote). Caroline, born in Leamington, was nine years old and Edith, born in Charlecote, seven. Caroline was baptised in August 1862 (suggesting the marriage might have been in 1861, after the census). Elizabeth Parsons had been born in Fordington, Dorset, and I started to look for her in earlier censuses, but Elizabeth is a common name so I thought it was impossible until I suddenly thought to look back at the list of servants at Charlecote in 1861 and lo and behold there was Elizabeth Tizzard, housekeeper and maid, born in Fordington, Dorset.
We can imagine the gossip there must have been below stairs about the match between the new young butler and the somewhat older housekeeper. Clearly the Lucy family accepted the situation, because William was still employed there ten years after the marriage. Indeed, going back to 1851 I found Elizabeth Tizzard working at Charlecote as Mrs. Lucy’s lady’s maid. Ten years before, in 1841, I think Elizabeth was an agricultural labourer’s daughter living in Netherbury, Dorset. It’s interesting to note that Elizabeth’s census age goes from 14 up to 27, then down to 35 and down again to 42 – gaining and losing several years over the 30 year period; maybe she pretended to be older to impress her employers and then shed the years again because she was embarrassed at being older than her husband!
I saw the butler
I took the opportunity to visit Charlecote House one December, as it was open for Christmas shopping. Imagine my delight to be greeted in the kitchen by a Victorian butler! This was William’s predecessor (Foster) played by a member of the Triangle Theatre Group for the day. The actor agreed to pose for a photograph outside the back door (indoor photography not being allowed). It was magical to walk round the kitchen and servants’ quarters imagining William and Elizabeth courting with discreet looks and snatched words. I admired the ranks of bells that must have summoned them to various rooms in the house. The service wing was added in Victorian times (1829), and so would have been a smart ‘new’ building when William and Elizabeth were working there.
Lucy family records of the servants
Elizabeth features in the Guidebook to Charlecote House (as Elizabeth Tizzard, lady’s maid in 1851). The lady of the house, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Lucy, kept diaries and her published memoir occasionally mentions her staff. Elizabeth appears as ‘Tizzard’ on a trip to Llanover in Wales. Tizzard also accompanied her mistress to London for her daughter’s confinement. Later on, William was entrusted with the family dinner service: ‘Parsons, Horton and the other servants, with the service of plate, went to 57 Grosvenor Street [the family’s London home] and we were to follow.’ [Mistress of Charlecote: the memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Gollancz, London, 1983 pp. 95-6, 108 & 128].